Harmon Canyon: Turning our Hillsides into Trails, Not Putting them into Barrels

Ventura is one of the last remaining quaint little beach towns in Southern California that is known for its surf. I know I’ve said this about Santa Barbara before, but compared to Ventura, the city just north has seasonal waves at best due to the Islands that block South tropical swells from barreling into its beaches. Plus, some go as far as saying that the Santa Barbara county line was, in a way, gerrymandered to include Rincon, the only break that really puts it on the radar. This is a tangent, but who cares, right? I know this is the Radavist, and we’re typically mountain people. Hang in there. The mountains are coming. Ventura has its unique point break right off the California St exit and next to the fairgrounds where I’d go to watch the Van’s Warped Tour as a kid in the 90’s. This point break is known as C-Street. I would argue rivals Rincon at certain swell angles, with its many take-off points that lead into a long, smooth yet punctuated ride requiring you to navigate sectioning walls through a sea of people and of the literal sea, making your way down the beach.

Being a mountain person like many of you reading this article, I’ve sat in the lineup at C-Street staring at the green hillsides in a symphony of go-carts buzzing around the fairgrounds, yearning to ride them. Mountain biking has never been a thing in Ventura. Some bike zealots grace the town, and the crew even went as far as building a practice cyclocross loop through the estuary area that provides a home base for many people who cannot afford to rent a space in the area. This estuary area, whose muddiness inspired the Chumash, who formerly lived in the area to call their home Shisholop [which is now called Ventura], meaning mud, makes for an excellent cyclocross course. Yet, that only lasted a few years, and I think the ringleader moved closer to Ojai.

When the Spanish came in and built Mission San Buenaventura, meaning Good Fortune, in 1782, Shisholop became a Spanish settlement and ever since existed as Ventura because San Buenaventura was too hard to say. During this period, the land was sold to private landowners. Over time, these plots were parceled out to individual families and large companies. Yet, because the bookkeeping and geological surveys weren’t as tight back in the nineteenth century as they are now, specific plots of land were left unaccounted. This seemingly odd fact to include is critically important because these spots of unaccounted for property complicate large land acquisitions.

A standard bike route around Ventura, this one on the road, also starts near C-Street, on a bike path heading East towards Ojai. It snugs up against the Ventura River, then goes into an industrial zone where oil derricks kind of slap you in the face with the uncomfortable reminder of what it takes to accommodate our modern comforts and needs, before reaching the old Brook’s Institute of Photography campus. The hillside to the east is streaked with these forbidden switchbacks and crisscrossed with phone lines. Heading towards the Southeast takes us across more forbidden hillsides, some comprised of private homes and ranches, and some owned by oil and power companies and then to this burgeoning gem in Ventura.

A local nonprofit organization, Ventura Land Trust, who watch over that Ventura River estuary space, is purchasing this burgeoning gem, a section of the hillside called Harmon Canyon. It lies along the eastern edge of town and winds up 1,400 feet of elevation to vistas with panoramic views that span across the Santa Monica mountain range, the Channel Islands, and the Topa Topas. Their plan? To create a nature preserve with trails for everyone—hikers, bikers, and wanderers alike—to enjoy! This vision for the hillside is especially beautiful in these politically precarious times that have been neglecting to respect many natural spaces.

Out of the water, and onto the dirt, John Watson of The Radavist and I met Dan Hulst of Ventura Land Trust on the property to check out what they’re doing, what they’re saving, what they’re planning, and what they’re up against. I [responsibly] slipped out of work a little early that Wednesday and drove along that section of the 101 that is sandwiched between more forbidden hills and cove after cove, one recognized by the oil island that locals tell tourists is Hawaii. In Ventura, I passed the downtown and peeled off the 101 and onto the 126, headed towards the foothills, and pulled into what looked like an avocado orchard to find John, Dan, and Dave, a longtime Ventura Land Trust supporter, chatting ready to go. Although the only official roads are fire roads, many of which will haunt racers of the upcoming Broken Spoke Challenge, Dan advised we bring mountain bikes, in the event we might find an opportunity for an unofficial descent.

We waste no time hopping on the bikes, and a loose and steep fire road greets from behind a locked gate. The pitch rolled then steadied along a dried riverbed beneath a cliff for a few beats. “To the left is a walking path we’ve built to show the property to donors who have a tough time riding or hiking,” which is a wonderfully inclusive idea. Dan continues, “Once the preserve opens, bikes won’t be allowed in this area, so let’s turn up here!” We swing left, and meander around a thicket of native shrub, mostly sage, and get right up next to the river and capture some shade from the cliff. We wrap back to the main fire road and turn left to go up again.

The fire road recedes into a backdrop of green hills, striped with a few switchbacks, nearly no longer forbidden. These hills spend most of their days dubbed golden or brown, but after recent rain, the green prevails. The flourishing sage, ryegrass, and mustard make it easy to forget that the Thomas Fire ripped through those fields, burning the entire canyon. The fire that started in Ojai December 3, 2017, and raged through the foothills, including Harmon Canyon, and into downtown Ventura within hours of the spark. As a result, fire mitigation is on the high priority list. And, although the flora grew back and fauna crept back in, with only a few pockets of singed manzanita skeletons as reminders, the relative amounts of native to invasive species shifted, and now a higher percentage of invasive plants such as thistle and mustard are sneaking in.

Before heading up the first climb, we snag a quick right and head through this shaded oak grove, and visit a historic homestead site. Much of the land has been converted to grasslands when turned into ranches, and some areas naturally host a more herbaceous shrubby ecosystem. The homestead was an old stone guest house, and the wild spot in the roaring ’20s, where we think it’s remote location provided a safe-harbor for that illegal liquor. I’m dying to know what kind of gatherings flourished as the ’60s set in, considering figures such as Meher Baba, John Lennon, and Baba Ramdas frequented Ojai and surrounding areas. Now though, only a foundation with one maybe two hints of walls are left; those secrets freed to escape with the winds.

Dennis and Jason are clearing some fallen oak branches and bundles of thistle with a Cat Kubota Tractor. In a weird way, I realized a stupidly simple fact that I should not share here, but heck, I saw that these machines are merely empty vessels capable of doing work but aren’t bent towards evil, like I thought before, and are just as proficient at doing good. I’ve seen them in a gazzilion of circumstances. Still, up until this point, they always brought up a sour feeling accompanied by images of severe environmentalists dumping sugar into the gas tanks in protest. I’m not going to call anything right or wrong here, but I know there are many ways to take action towards a belief, including practical, ineffective, and even anti-productive methods. After researching, questioning, reading, dreaming, to me, supporting groups like the Ventura Land Trust is one of the effective ways to help to protect our precious natural environment.

We turned away with adieus, and that recent tangent that went from my head to this paper dissolved as we played over little bumps in the path, hopping our way back to the main drag. We next turned up this long steep path to the east, with a series of grade reversals moderately built on a road that is maintained by Southern California Edison. Ribbons of ruts laced the way, signature of non-sustainable trail building. We pulled over a few times, where Dan pointed out places where they would build sustainable trail features, such as rolling grade reversals, which, when built right, can be used as small highspeed jumps. The land trust is working alongside trail guru Chris Ore, and with the local trail building organization in Santa Barbara, Sage Trail Alliance, who host training and offer practical expertise in building sustainable trails through the local geology. This is a dream team when it comes to passionate, strategic, and intelligent trail design.

The geology surrounding Santa Barbara and Ventura counties is far from trivial when it comes to designing a trail. The hills are steep and prone to erosion, they spend most of their time desiccated then sporadically are hit with intense bouts of rain and strong winds. They also lay near fault lines, and earthquakes will undoubtedly rumble through without warning. Then, of course, we now know the threat of fire. The silt and sand soil types require not only strategic design on such grades but also special machinery to work through rocky sections.

All of this, plus carefully routing trails to avoid the sacred land and cultural sites, is considered alongside stoking-out all trail users, of course, when designing and building the trails. The design phase of a trail system of this size in this area takes around 1 to 2 years and requires enough capital to pay the professionals.

Despite being seemingly inscribed by oil extraction—based on what we see along the bike path and from out in the ocean—oil rigs have never bored into the 2,123 acres of Harmon Canyon. Up until recently, Harmon Canyon was comprised of parcels privately owned by thirteen family members and unaccounted for “illegal lots.” As mentioned earlier, these illegal lots of land complicate a transaction that is already complicated by an agreement between thirteen owners. On top of that, there are easements with multiple utility companies on the property.

Finalizing this type of deal involves the city government, each owner, and probably lawyers. It takes time, money, and compromise. Once the rumor of trails in Ventura hit, it spread as quickly as the warthog’s gas, and mountain people started biting the bit waiting to ride them, I too guilty of impatience here. But it sounds like there are solid strategic reasons it is taking time to open. And, the rest comes down to strategically placing trails in our lovely central coast mountains [we’re not Southern California].

And yes, the hills are steep, praise the eagle, pedaling up that wall of a climb on a mountain bike I recalled that Broken Spoke Challenge, an upcoming gravel grinder at the end of March, will be raced on rigid bikes, the type that often has less forgiving gear ratios than eagle of the mountain bike. I can’t imagine. Then the grade flattened a bit as we curved around to the right and crested a Southern peak on the property. “Let’s go check out the panoramic view!” Dan said as he beckoned us to follow him through towering mustard, sage, and ryegrass. When this perennial canyon opened up, Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands faced us, Oxnard and the steep Boney Mountain, treasured as the “Spirit on the Mountain” by the Satwiwa, looked on from the left, and the right gave way to more rolling green hills. I had spent so many years staring up at this hillside from down below, hating the drilling rigs and wanting to ride it, making facing back down on those years deeply special. As cheesy as it sounds, I was filled with gratitude for the work going on to preserve this natural space and its ecosystem.

We flipped it and weaved our way back through the ruts at speed and approached another climb. This one felt even steeper than the first! We went up towards the northern hilltop, then undulated along the spine of the ridge and then bushwhacked our way half a mile over barbed wire and through dense, dry stalks of dead mustard to the peak. “This is why we had you bring mountain bikes!” We looked down at a field of straw… no trail… but across the way looked like Zorro had etched a long and crisp switchback into the hillside. “Haven’t been down there in a few months, not sure what to expect, but our goal today was to scout it.”

We met them back down at the car and watched Harmon Canyon gate close as the Earth’s shadow began to rise over the ridges we were just on. Once the acquisition is complete, it will be open dawn to dusk daily, free of charge, for the people to enjoy. The natural ecosystem will also be preserved and allowed to flourish.

Earnings from this article were donated to the Ventura Land Trust. I am looking forward to experiencing this space alongside other respectful trail users, woohoo!